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On the Town

Long Runs with Longhairs

Our Saturday showbiz feature this week celebrates the centenary of Robert Wright, born one hundred years ago, on September 25th 1914, in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Bob who? Well, Wright and his writing partner George "Chet" Forrest were never exactly household names in the music biz, but they certainly worked with a lot of household names, including Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. The songs they wrought from classical tunes were old-fashioned even at the time, but Sinatra recorded no fewer than four of them. "Strange Music" was written by Wright & Forrest with Grieg, albeit an involuntary collaboration on the latter's part. It was strange music for Frank, but he must have liked it: he recorded it three times. "Baubles, Bangles And Beads" he did in the Fifties in a swingin' Billy May arrangement and then in the Sixties as a bossa nova with Antonio Carlos Jobim, and it stayed in the act almost until the end as a a bit of fun he liked to kick around on stage with just a rhythm section, always building to a killer ending:

When you're wearing
And those koo-koo beads!

That penultimate word is a Frankism not in Wright & Forrest's original lyric, but they didn't seem to mind. "Stranger In Paradise" was Tony Bennett's first ever British Number One and is still in his book six decades later: he did it with Andrea Bocelli on one of his bazillion duets albums a year or two back:

Take my hand
I'm a Stranger In Paradise
All lost in a wonderland
A Stranger In Paradise...

Their composing partner on that one was Borodin. A quarter-century back, I went to see the opera whence it came: Prince Igor. For some reason, the Royal Opera House had been on strike, and, as Covent Garden's recalcitrant coryphées finally returned to their unionized tutus and kicked up the Polovtsian Dances, I found myself silently singing along to the unadorned music:

Take my hand…

Wright & Forrest adapted Borodin for the Broadway smash Kismet. In the show it's a duet between the beautiful Marsinah and the young Caliph. Whoa, don't worry. I don't mean "caliph" in the al-Baghdadi ISIS head-hacking sense. This was back in the Fifties, when caliphs were cuddly and Islam was just a bit of local color for a hit musical. For Kismet,Wright & Forrest performed an equally spectacular transmogrification on the 2nd movement of Borodin's String Quartet No 2 in D major or, as they called it, "Baubles, Bangles and Beads". I ran into them around the time of that Royal Opera production of Prince Igor, which they thought they might look in on if they got a moment. No big deal. After all, no matter how big Borodin's Prince Igor gets, Borodin, Wright & Forrest's Kismet will always be bigger. "So why is that?" I asked.

"We like to think it's us," said Chet Forrest, disarmingly. Compared to the garrulous Wright, Forrest had long periods of silence verging on the Trappist - the result, if memory serves, of an automobile accident. But, when he did speak, what he said was choice. They met in Miami, when Bob Wright was the high school piano star and Forrest came in to audition for the Glee Club, and they've been inseparable ever since – except for a few weeks when the 16-year-old Wright was pianist to the celebrated fan dancer Sally Rand: "But she was never nude," he assured me. "She always wore a French what-d'you-call-it?"

"Body stocking," said Forrest, who never got as close to her as Wright, but, like any good writer, had the mot juste at his fingertips.

After Miss Rand, they went upscale. Indeed, their list of composing partners is as classy as they come: Rachmaninov, Saint-Saëns, Grieg, and pretty well every other longhair you can think of. For Kismet, the producer originally said, "How about Tchaikovsky?"

"But we said no, we'd done that. Then he said Rimsky-Korsakov, but we said no, done that," Bob Wright told me.

It was Vernon Duke, the writer of "April In Paris", who hit upon the answer: "Tell the boys to look into Borodin."

Conversely, as composers, they also worked with some unusual lyricists, setting (at the behest of the United States Government) Thomas Mann's Letter to the German People. But, if they could write both words and music, why did Wright and Forrest need third parties at all?

"We were swept from writing risqué material for cabaret to MGM, who signed us on the basis of 88 pop songs we had written," explained Wright. "And then our careers took a completely different turn. Hunt Stromberg, who'd produced the first two Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy pictures, agreed to do the third – Sigmund Romberg's Maytime – but only under the condition that they threw out everything. Then he said, 'I want the youngest, most inexperienced writers to work on this picture. I want something totally fresh.'

"Well, I was 21, Chet was 20. And the music department said to us, 'Romberg's here getting $2,500 a week, and Stromberg won't have him, he says he's finished. Do you fellers think you'd be able to cook up some tunes based on out-of-copyright music? You'll get no credit, because the Romberg contract won't allow it. Can you do that?' Well, we were writing jazz, pop tunes. Operetta was the farthest thing from our minds. We'd never even seen Nelson Eddy on screen. Anyway, he played a young music student, she was a famous opera singer – I'm trying to remember the plot – and they said, 'They've got to have some music to bring them together.' So we said, 'Suppose he was from Virginia and he invites her to breakfast'."

As the show was set in Napoleon III's Paris, this seemed an unlikely premise for a song. Nonetheless, the executives raved, and Wright and Forrest went off and wrote:

I will fix you ham and eggs
Prime Virginia ham and eggs
Like they fix them way down south...

"Suddenly the word went out, 'They can write like Puccini or Verdi, and we've got the bastards for 200 bucks a week.'"

Having been shanghaied into operetta, Wright and Forrest made the best of it. But at least with Maytime Romberg's name on the picture had given the impression of a living composer. For Song of Norway, Wright and Forrest were working with Grieg, who didn't carry much clout with their agent: "Whaddaya wanna screw around with this guy for?" he said. "Who's he?" Wright and Forrest weren't expert enough to give an authoritative answer, but Cole Porter reassured them: "I've studied every songwriter. And the best who ever lived was Edvard Grieg."

But there's more to these scores than lucrative opportunism. Take that soaring and ethereal middle section of "Stranger In Paradise":

I saw your face
And I ascended
Out of the commonplace
Into the rare
Somewhere in space
I hang suspended
Until I know
There's a chance for me there...

"There's not a note of Borodin in there," said Wright. "There was no Borodin left. We'd used everything we could use."

"So we wrote it ourselves," added Forrest. What's impressive, though, is the way it seems to grow organically from Borodin's main theme: you can't spot the join.

Still, except for Magdalena, a flop written with Villa-Lobos which is regarded as a lost masterpiece, most of their shows have been rather patronizingly dismissed as mere crowd-pleasers. For half a century, they practiced a style of theatre as unhip as you can get. But the advantage is, if you're ready-made old-fashioned, you never go out of date. "And there's a difference," added Forrest, "between good old-fashioned and bad old-fashioned."

"And," said Wright, "Chet and I have never been interested in writing parochially, for the New York smartasses." Yet, to the smartasses' surprise, in 1989 Wright & Forrest returned to Broadway and gave a very sickly Brit-dependent Great White Way one of the few home-grown hits of a grim decade. Grand Hotel owed as much to Tommy Tune's slick contemporary staging style as to Wright & Forrest's score, and the boys had some well-aired "artistic differences" with the mercurial director. "It's Tommy's version of our show, rather than our show" is how they put it, but they preferred to see this as part of the general trend towards "director power". "Back in the Twenties," Wright recalled, ""George Pierce Baker said, 'Remember this. A director's theatre is a theatre in decline.' As marvelous as it may be, someone has still got to sit down with a pencil and a paper and write something."

For that last hurrah, Wright & Forrest got out the pencil and paper and wrote it without Borodin or anybody else. "We prefer to do it on our own," said Forrest. "We always would have, as a matter of fact." But fate, or kismet, a big force in operetta, decreed otherwise. For The Firefly, Wright and Forrest were called on to turn an instrumental piece by Rudolf Friml into "The Donkey Serenade" – not a serenade to a donkey but to Jeanette MacDonald; it was restructured, however, into a donkey clip-clop tempo. "Friml walked in as Allan Jones was singing, stamped his foot in front of the whole orchestra and said, 'Zat iss not Friml.' You see, he wrote dee-da-dum, dee-da-dum, not oom-cha, oom-cha; that wasn't the way he heard the melody. He stormed out and never spoke to us from that time – 1937 – to 1965. But it was his biggest hit, and, in any case," added Wright, with a sly dig, "he'd never turned the royalties back."

Bob Wright died in 2005 at the age of 90. He told me he hoped that when he and Chet graduated to the celestial conservatory, Grieg and the gang would be waiting and happy to thank them for bringing their music to a wider audience. ("Prince Igor has never been done in the United States," he pointed out.) I hope he was right - for as the song says:

But open your angel's arms
To this Stranger In Paradise
And tell him that he need be
A stranger no more.

from On the Town, September 27, 2014


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